Thrillers, at least in terms of premise, don’t get much more psychologically rich than The Chain, the buzzy new novel from Adrian McKinty (the Sean Duffy series). The novel begins at a bus stop, with the random abduction of a 13-year-old girl named Kylie, and develops in blisteringly short chapters that move virtually in real time. We learn Kylie’s kidnapping is just the latest in a horrifyingly effective ransom scheme, wherein parents are tasked with taking a child hostage in order for their own child to be released. If they don’t, the child will die. What would you do to save your kids? The Chain asks this of a series of characters who realize themselves capable of far worse than they ever imagined.
The parent added to the “Chain” in McKinty’s telling is Rachel, an academically minded single mother whose breast cancer is resurfacing. (She’d been in remission for a year.) McKinty drops in character details like he’s filling out a résumé — about how her marriage went south, what the past year has done to her relationship with Kylie — but merely because, well, there’s no time for anything more: Her daughter is in danger, and she has to get her back. This inherent breakneck quality lends The Chain structural confidence. Rarely does second-to-second pacing feel justified; here, it’s essential.
Is McKinty up to the task, though, for well over 300 pages? The author at times seems to be at war with the demands of his genre: A sort of cruelly, engrossingly simple story of parental desperation bumps up against corny crime staples — larger conspiracies, literal shadowy figures, the occasional red herring. The novel is at its best when its focus narrows, with punishing clarity, on the emotional intensity of its central predicament. As Rachel becomes more determined to bring the whole chain down, McKinty loses a bit of narrative credibility; more frustratingly, in the back half of the book, he slows down, adding fat to what initially reads like a tremendously lean novel.
Working within a vividly chilly New England locale, McKinty conjures a fatalistic sense of mystery and confusion. Following Rachel as she wades through this inexplicable nightmare, or staying with Kylie as she pieces together exactly what’s happening to her, works as well as it does because of how off-balance the author keeps them. You’re teetering right along with them. When Rachel (and her brother-in-law, Pete, a military veteran who helps her along the way) settles on a target, things inevitably go wrong, and McKinty stretches the bounds of belief in the plot’s progression. But by God are these sequences nail-biting. What comes next is clunky and a little didactic, making the story bigger than it needs to be, but at least we’re in the hands of someone who knows how to finish things off — with one last irresistible sprint into darkness. In a book like The Chain, you have no choice but to pray for the worst. B